The 5th London Korean Film Festival 2010,
Korean film back in the West End
(5-23 November)

This year the London Korean Film Festival UK (LKFF) screened twenty-one films, hosted six Q&A sessions, held two filmmaker retrospectives, generated good publicity in the West End, and had few if any restrictions on admission at the point of purchase, making it easy for theatergoers to attend many of the screenings they wanted. Its only flaw was the shunting into the ICA’s ugly theater space and tiny screening room of a whole range of lauded and popular films. These included the erotic comedy The Servant (2010) from director Kim Dae-woo, the prison drama Harmony (2010) starring Lost’s Kim Yun-jin, revenge-horror Bedevilled (2010), and the mystery thrillers Bestseller (2010) and Moss (2010). Also in the ICA mix were four of the most anticipated LKFF films: Jang Hoon’s Secret Reunion (2010) starring Song Kang-ho, Im Sang-soo’s thriller The Housemaid (2010) with Jeon Do-yeon (plus Q&A), Joseon-dynasty actioner Blades of Blood (2010), and John H Lee’s Korean War film 71 into the Fire (2010), which marks the 60th anniversary of the war. Lastly, the ICA hosted Tony Rayn’s ‘What is the future of Korean film?’ panel discussion with the filmmaker Jang Jin.

Top of many a fan’s list was Lee Jeong-beom’s The Man From Nowhere (2010), an action shoot-’em-up starring the Korean heartthrob Won Bin; and Kim Jee-woon’s “bloody vengeance” movie I Saw the Devil (2010) which the director describes dryly as “a love story about a man who is willing to do anything for the one he loves”. Both films helped to launch the festival at the Odeon West End: The Man From Nowhere on Friday 5 November with a director’s Q&A, I Saw the Devil on 6 November, also with director’s Q&A.

I saw both and neither really struck a chord with originality, but such is the messy curatorial business of film selection. Lee’s The Man From Nowhere shared some common virtues with lesser known, social agenda films on the programme — via its commentary on human trafficking and organ harvesting — but Kim Jee-woon's I Saw the Devil, which stars two actors of charisma and great talent in Choi Min-sik and Lee Byung-hun, was a disappointment. This said, the prestige Kim lends the festival as one of the top directors in Korean cinema is absolutely indispensable, and his popularity here in the city probably far greater than he realises. Elsewhere, the Institute of Contemporary Arts’ effort to support and manage the bulk of the L.K.F.F.’s screenings was welcomed—its cafĂ©/bar a decent place to catch up with others, the cinema reasonable enough to fit in Im Sang-soo’s Q & A—but the venue for the roundtable sucked: the theatre space was still set up for amdram, advertising stands came in late, and for good measure the seating was 1000 times worse than high school. But the topic—the future of the Korean film industry—was wholly prescient.

Cha Tae-sik (Won Bin) in Lee Jeong-beom’s The Man From Nowhere (2010)

In the last five years, the production of multi-purpose would-be blockbusters has bolstered commercial cinema, deepening anxieties regarding the promotion of domestic independent filmmakers and the sustainability of New Korean Cinema. Rayns, Simon Ward and mainstream filmmaker Jang Jin considered many aspects of the film business, including the present distribution system after the old lines collapsed, sources of financing for independents, and the merits of the Korean Film Council (K.O.F.I.C.)—a state-funded organisation which, for Jang at least, is having little success fostering artistic experimentation via its promotion, theatrical distribution and direct funding initiatives. In fairness, though, K.O.F.I.C. surely is about helping budding student filmmakers with short films and independents that can play internationally more than anything else? Bringing things back to the festival itself, Ward discussed the role of the Independent Cinema Office (I.C.O.) and particularly its association with K.O.F.I.C. and the Korean Cultural Centre in composing a viable film programme.

The addition of the Piccadilly Apollo on the list of venues showed the organisers’ ambition to enhance the L.K.F.F.’s image as a prestigious, cosmopolitan event. Consequently, crossing La Galleria Pall Mall to the mini-club atmosphere of the Apollo was some antidote to the I.C.A.: intelligent lighting system, relaxed lounge rooms, reflective surfaces, I’ll bet the place has a late night license too. For this opulent setting, the festival organisers mounted a Jang Jin retrospective. Jang’s visibility as a “pivotal voice” in Korean cinema (though amusingly he himself proposed “mysterious creature” as a more fitting description) is certainly less clear to audiences in the U.K.—particularly to those for whom Kim Ki-duk and Hong Sang-soo’s distinction has already been well confirmed—but his films, nonetheless, helped to differentiate this year’s festival from those of previous years, tactfully guiding our eye away from auteur showmen like Bong Joon-ho (2009) and Park Chan-wook (2007) if only to deposit us in the fairly mainstream realm of the black comedy, satirical thriller and the romcom. The exhibition featured Guns & Talks (2001), the sweetly comic Someone Special (2004), Murder Take One (a.k.a., The Big Scene, 2005) which screened at the L.K.F.F.’s inaugural launch four years ago, and Good Morning President (2009), a film which outgrossed Park Chan-wook’s Thirst at last year’s box office. In this, the festival’s reputation was well deserved, due to its close co-ordination of the four screenings with post-film Q & A sessions and film-specific introductions by the director.

Of this, however, there can be no doubt: the festival badly needs women. Oh, yes. See, I don’t mind attending the retrospectives, I dig the high-profile visits too, but between Jang, Kim, Im, Lee Jeong-beom, Ahn Jae-hoon, Simon Field, Simon Ward, Tony Rayns, Jonathan Ross and the South Korean ambassador popping in to wish us all the best, festival priorities are unreservedly edging out the girl guests in this equation. So this year’s spotlight category included a feature on leading ladies—the four films being Harmony (dir. Kang Dae-gyu, 2010), The Servant (dir. Kim Dae-woo, 2010), Bedevilled (dir. Jang Cheol-soo, 2010) which I think was screened earlier this summer at FrightFest, and the most relevant, Paju (dir. Park Chan-ok, 2009)—but to my knowledge Han Hye-jin, the co-director on the animated Green Days (co-dir. Ahn Jae-hoon, with whom Ahn runs Studio M.W.P.), was the only woman promoting Korean cinema this year. On the face of it, rare opportunities might have passed this Autumn to involve international star Kim Yoon-jin (Harmony) or the awesomely talented Jeon Do-yeon (The Housemaid), but as the press gambits for both films ended long ago (they screened in January and May respectively) nothing much was going to happen on that front. This has to change. If the L.K.F.F. is to continue revamping itself and consolidate its position alongside the London Film Festival as one of the finest film cultural events in this city—and it deserves its reputation—then perhaps it can turn to film actresses like, for instance, Yum Jung-ah and Bae Doo-na. As cultural ambassadors with interests that extend beyond cinema, both actresses would change the mindset of future festivalgoers. For the better.
28 November, 2010


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